Friday, June 29, 2012

Barbara - you Shouldn't Have

When spring arrives; prospectors comb the hills in search of the yellow metal - GOLD! Many look and find nothing; others find traces of gold, a few find nuggets, others accidentally find hidden treasure: ruby, sapphire, benitoite, garnet, diamond.  And still others find lots of mica - that golden bladed crystal that fools more people than an honest politician.

Then it hits, the illness - an awful incurable disease: GOLD FEVER. It affects many – the inflicted surrender everything including common sense. In local pubs, con-men search out the inflicted to provide opportunities to invest in mines that are too good to be true. It is like Congress and taxes or Obama and stimulus – the more you give, the more they take, and the more they lie - its like a gangster movie that never ends.

Mark Twain wrote, ‘a gold mine is a hole in the grown with a liar standing over it,’ in reference to this infliction. I'm reminded of my favorite con-grandma. An elderly lady from Atlantic City. I always enjoyed seeing Barbara (RIP), but then again, I never caught gold fever so I was immune to her scams. Soaking wet, she weighed 98 pounds – a tiny, bent over elderly lady who seemed totally harmless, yet could drink anyone under the table – an important attribute for someone in her line of work. As told by my good friend Steve Gyorvary, she kept contracts in the trunk of her car along with bottles of fool’s gold to sell to the gullible and inflicted. In any gold district, gullible wannabe prospectors are found by the dozens and con-men are there to help them part with their money.

Steve and his family had purchased the Mary Ellen gold mine years ago – this is how I met him. I was mapping the South Pass greenstone belt and all of the historical mines I could get access to. Steve’s Mary Ellen was developed by an incline shaft with levels that followed a vein in a tonalite stock (tonalite is similar to quartz diorite and granite). Steve and I mapped the Mary Ellen mine with my assistant Jay Roberts.

The Mary Ellen shaft is 240 feet deep with 5 levels. The mine was dug on a quartz vein 3 feet wide that narrows to 6 inches in places. In some stopes and drifts, miners only removed as much rock as necessary, characteristic of 19th century hardrock gold mines. Thus Steve, my assistant, and I crawled through these narrow tunnels. And some were very narrow.

Anyway, Steve’s dad decided to visit his son along with the family mine. Unlike the slovenly of the 60s and 70s, his father dressed to travel – wearing a suit to fly from St. Louis to Wyoming to visit Steve and the mine. Upon arriving in Atlantic City, he stopped in the Mercantile, a local pub where everyone sooner or later ended up in this tiny town of 47 people with 30 dogs. Sitting at the bar, Barbara's eyes lit up – anyone who knew her could read her mind – ‘a rich sucker just walked through the door – a man wearing a suit in a gold district with no paved roads had to be rich’.

She latched onto him, bought him a drink and found he did indeed have an interest in gold! “I have a mine to sell. It's rich. I don't want to get rid of it, but have no choice, a family death - you know; thus I can sell it to you at very low price”, she announced. Slamming down the contract for the mine, she continued “all you have to do is sign here, and you'll be the proud owner of the Mary Ellen mine”. Steve’s Dad looked at her in amazement and responded to Barbara, “Why I believe I already own that mine”.

I heard that Barbara periodically sold the same mine or claim 2 or 3 times a year. She met one wannabe prospector who couldn’t believe his luck. A bottle full of gold. “No, I don’t want to sell it, I plan to keep this gold”, she told him. But after many drinks, he was light-headed and Barbara looked as if she would slide under the table. He continued to press her and she finally capitulated and sold the gold for 85% of spot price. Later, proudly displaying his gold in the Mercantile for everyone to see until one knowledgeable prospector pointed out the bottle seemed awful light for gold, and the gold rolled around suspended in the water when agitated.

“It looks like mica to me!" indicated the prospector.

The Atlantic City volunteer fire department later responded to an alarm. Barbara's Cadillac was on fire – someone had poured gas on the car and set it on fire.

Another of the hundreds of stories I enjoyed about Barbara. She lived in a dump of a cabin a very short distance southwest of the Mercantile. But she spent more time in the Mercantile two houses down the street where she ran a bar tab each day and night. By evening, she would get really stewed and walk home a few yards down the dirt road to her cabin. But she had to pass Jim Rutter's cabin along the way where she would pause; lean against his trommel to catch her breath, then make the next couple of yards to her door. This went on all spring and summer.

As Steve tells the story, near the end of July, Jim moved his trommel to his claim. The next evening, Barbara closed down the Mercantile pub again. Started her walk home. Made it to her rest stop and put her arm out to rest against the trommel. Thud! There was no trommel. It took some time, but Barbara finally got up, puzzled and made it the rest of the way to her cabin.

Wow, look at this large flake of gold! Just kidding. Many people are fooled when
finding mica in their gold pans thinking they have gold. I had one prospector
who claimed to had barrels of gold flakes that he collected from the Middle Fork of the
Little Laramie River (which he panned all winter long in the icy cold temperatures
in Wyoming). His reward for all of that work was a nasty cold and lots of potting soil -
no gold! Gold is not transparent or translucent like the muscovite crystal above, it does
not roll end over end in a gold pan, and it does not have mirror-like flat surfaces.

Note the color difference between the gold in this pan from Douglas Creek and the mica above. 

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